It might have been 1999-ish, judging by my hairstyle. Possibly 1995? I was the director of marketing at Hahn Loeser + Parks, and the women attorneys at the firm asked me to find a national speaker for a women’s networking event.
Having been wowed by Helen Thomas and her witty insights into 10 Presidents years earlier at a Cincinnati journalists’ luncheon, I threw her name in the ring. She was available, her price was right, and there I was one morning accompanying a town car driver to pick her up at Hopkins Airport.
I am on the tail end, age wise, of those who remember seeing Helen at White House press conferences, on Sunday morning political talk shows, or in a byline for the United Press International wire service.
For my younger colleagues, the tiny, scrappy Helen Thomas was known as the dean of the White House press corps. For 30 years, beginning with the last days of the Eisenhower administration, she covered the President, wars, international policy and scandals – and started more than a few herself as an outspoken supporter of Palestine and a critic of war. Due to her eventual seniority among the press corps, she for years asked the first question at every POTUS press conference, and her ”Thank you Mr. President” closed every one as well.
Helen was a journalist for nearly 60 years, retiring in 2010. And in case that doesn’t truly click with the 20 and 30-something communications professionals out there who thankfully never lived in an age where help wanted ads were divided into Employment – Men and Employment – Women, Helen was the ultimate trailblazer in our profession. No woman journalist had ever been allowed to join the National Press Club or attend its major speaking events, and Helen vowed to change that. That battle took her through the 1950s and 1960s. A small victory occurred in 1956 when women were permitted to sit in the balcony and watch the speakers, but asking questions like the men was still off limits. She and others finally broke that barrier in 1971, becoming full members, and Helen went on to become the Club’s first female officer.
Her obituary in The Washington Post (a terrific must-read) described her this way: ”a wire service correspondent and columnist whose sharp questions from the front row of the White House press room challenged and annoyed 10 presidents.” Another obituary this week said “as the leaders of the free world called on her, they steeled themselves as she asked the toughest questions in the room. Colin Powell once asked, “Isn’t there some war we can send her to?”
But she delighted me, that apparently wintry day in our wool suits, as well as our room of lunch guests with fantastic stories and memories of her time covering – and irritating – the most powerful men in the world over the last three decades. Picking her up, her collection of satchels and bookbags reminded me of often-windblown Plain Dealer reporter Jane Scott. Helen was entirely without pretense or airs as I had the driver take the secret back way down Scranton Road to avoid morning traffic delays, and she could not have been more charming during our curious ride under bridges and along the river. I can’t recall, though, if I took her back to the airport that day.
This lion of Presidential history, who broke the story that Nixon’s writers were working on a resignation speech (and infuriated Johnson when he learned through her UPI report that his daughter was engaged), passed away July 20. She was 92.
Do readers have their own Helen stories? Please share.